I’ve spoken only to one U.S. President. 22 years ago this week, I asked George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018) a question. 22 years later, during the week of his passing, I find myself still thinking about the kind and gentle answer he gave.
As a Speech Communications major at Texas A&M University, I was invited to hear President Bush give a lecture on presidential rhetoric December 2, 1996 titled “Presidential Leadership and the Management of International Crises.” A well-attended event, this presentation was a part of the lead up to the forthcoming 1997 dedication of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Center and the Bush School of Government & Public Service.
Those were heady days in College Station, Texas. Jersey Street, one of the main and well-known thoroughfares in town, at least since the time my father and sisters went to school there, was renamed in honor of Bush. The small regional airport now welcomed dignitaries and other former presidents. Thus, to get to hear this president on the eve of so much of the world coming to our college town was special, hard to take in, and comprehend.
Bush gave his lecture in a stadium-seating auditorium and a classmate of mine and I sat half-way up, behind the faculty and other noted guests, in a crowd totaling nearly a thousand. I remember marveling at the dignity and grace of President Bush, something we all know well now and have recounted this week in a myriad of tributes.
At the time, Bush was popular in College Station, but the books on his presidency had yet to be written and an assessment of his life had not yet come into full view for the world, and certainly not for me. He spoke of the challenges of leadership and, true to form, used self-deprecating humor, even playing clips of the comedian Dana Carvey’s caricatures. It was a great event and a great day.
At the conclusion of Bush’s lecture, there was time for students to ask questions. My heart started beating faster as I was not known as an “asker of questions,” but I had come prepared. To the surprise of my friend, I got up and asked George Herbert Walker Bush, “Given all you have seen and the crises you have managed, can you tell us about your relationship with Jesus Christ?”
At one level this was a sincere question—no aim at snark or gotcha. I was given the opportunity to ask a question, and I wanted to know what he thought. At another level, this was a test. Not for President Bush, but for me. A test of my new faith and my trust in God.
I had only been a believer in Christ Jesus for eighteen months at that time and would, in the next few days, receive baptism from the local Southern Baptist church I was attending.
Perhaps it was preparation for baptism that had me thinking about the public profession of my faith, I am not sure. But I remember thinking and praying before the event started and concluded that if there were time for questions, I wanted to ask President Bush about his faith and the role it played in his presidency. The test for me was whether I was willing to stand in public and ask such a question. Was I willing to run the risk of running the gauntlet of the crowd’s opinions and critique? Was I willing to stand and declare Christ openly?
Once I asked my question, the hundreds of people sitting between me and President Bush, including my professors, all turned and stared, and some glared, at me. There was a silence in that loud auditorium that seemed to last for five minutes, though I am sure it was only seconds.
In response, President Bush smiled. He then gave a gracious, self-deprecating explanation of his faith and, as a part of that, did affirm his faith in Christ. There was an Episcopalian joke in there, too, and as someone reared in that tradition, I felt a connection, a bond, instantly with this man.
I now know Bush’s answer to my question was a response he gave elsewhere and to others. His biographer, Jon Meacham, reported that the former president once was asked if he was “born again.” Bush replied, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clean-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness.”
But to me, in that auditorium, as someone trying to work out my newfound faith, it was quite inspiring.
After the event concluded, I remember leaving and my friend saying “I. can. not. believe. you just asked that question!” I don’t recall what I said, but I remember smiling and trembling.
I went back to my apartment also stunned that I had just asked a former President of the United States any question at all. I kneeled by a chair where I had started a new practice of reading the Bible daily and I read this from Psalm 8:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4 ESV)
I prayed and wondered who am I that God is mindful of me? I wondered at God’s helping me to even ask President Bush that question in public, and I wondered at President Bush’s kind, gentle answer.
Seeing President Bush laid to rest in College Station, Texas has stirred my mind and heart to remember that day 22 years ago.
Looking back now, I see a new believer still working out the questions of life and his place in the world. I also see a kind, gentle President giving a gracious response and testifying in public to his faith in Christ.
Jason G. Duesing is the author of Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism (B&H Books, 2018) and serves in academic leadership at Midwestern Seminay & Spurgeon College.
 Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House, 2015), 298.